They Called Themselves Christians

By Clint Gill

The greatest privilege in the world is to be called Christian. According to 1 Peter 4:16, it is a privilege to die for!

Such an assertion raises an interesting question: “What is a Christian?”

If we were to ask this question in a public opinion poll, we would probably be astounded at the variety of answers. To some, a Christian is simply a “good person,” someone who tries with some measure of success to keep the Ten Commandments. To others, a Christian is someone who “belongs” to a church. Some would limit the name to those whose church is called “Christian church” or “church of Christ.”

In most of the political world outside the United States, Christian implies citizenship in the Western world, especially the United States or Western Europe. To the Middle Eastern Muslim, a Christian is a non-Islamic Westerner. The Irish Roman Catholics and Protestants, who periodically kill one another, both claim to be Christians.

The list of conflicting answers goes on, but one thing is clear: most people have no concept of the biblical meaning of Christian. Many come close by answering that Christian means “belonging to Christ.” Etymologically, this answer is not far wrong. The first syllable of the word is “Christ.” The “ian” that ends the word translates the Greek ianos meaning “belonging to.” Though this is accurate at an elementary level, it is biblically inadequate in light of the origin of the word Christian.

Depth of Meaning

If we turn to the very early history of the church, as recorded in the New Testament book of Acts, we may be startled at the depth of meaning involved in this name. From Acts 11:26 we learn that the term Christian originated after a year of teaching by Barnabas and Saul (Paul) in the infant congregation at Antioch.

No apostle had planted the church in Antioch, the third-largest city in the Roman Empire, located some 250 miles north of Jerusalem. It was begun by “men of Cyprus and Cyrene,” Jewish believers who had fled from Jerusalem to escape the persecution of the church by Saul of Tarsus. As Luke records, “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). Some of the scattered went to Antioch. There they established the first non-Jewish congregation.

The response to the gospel in Antioch was overwhelming. This, plus the fact that it represented its introduction to a new class of believers, led the Jerusalem church to do what they had done in Samaria. They sent someone to investigate. To Samaria, they had sent Peter and John. To Antioch, they sent Barnabas. The work there was so obviously blessed by the Lord that Barnabas apparently saw no need to report to Jerusalem what he had discovered.

Barnabas soon learned the Antioch church was growing so fast that one man could not possibly adequately teach all the new believers. He went to Tarsus, sought out Saul, and brought him to help with the teaching. Together they labored for a year. As a result, “the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). It was the beginning of Paul’s fabulous impact on the world. He would turn cities upside-down for Christ!

Not a Put-down

Some scholars have concluded that the name Christian was given to the believers in derision; that it was meant as a put-down of the new faith on the part of the pagan population. There are three reasons to seriously question this theory.

First, there is no indication in Acts of any opposition to, much less enmity toward, the gospel in Antioch. Quite the contrary, the response there was more positive and on a larger scale than any place it was preached, so far as Acts is concerned.

Second, a close examination of the text indicates the disciples called themselves Christians. As with the King James translators, virtually all subsequent English versions have translated the Greek idiom by the English passive, “were called” in which the subject, “the disciples,” receives the action expressed by the verb “called.”

However, the Greek word chrematisai, translated “were called,” is not passive but active! Further, it is not a verb but an infinitive with the word mathetas, with disciples functioning as the subject of the verbal aspect of the infinitive. Literally, the disciples themselves did the calling.

Third, chrematisai is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (though not exclusively so) for divine calling. It seems likely the new name of the disciples in Antioch may very well have been given in fulfillment of Isaiah 62:2: “The Gentiles shall see your righteousness, and all kings your glory. You shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord will name” (New King James Version). No other phenomenon in recorded history has yet qualified as a fulfillment of this prophecy.

A New Identity

The real key to understanding the name Christian lies in the fact that Luke tells us it was coined as the result of a year’s teaching by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:26). While Luke does not record the content of this teaching, there is a strong indication of its likely content in Paul’s first known epistle. Galatians was written in the same general time frame as that in which the incidents in Antioch transpired. It was the church in Antioch that sent Barnabas and Saul on their first missionary journey. Their destination was four cities in Galatia.

In Galatians 3:27, 28, Paul states a truth about those in Christ that would seem to necessitate the adoption of a new name to designate believers.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (NKJV).

In 2 Corinthians 5:14-16, the same apostle wrote this:

For the love of Christ constrains us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again. Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh … Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new [kind of] creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new (NKJV).

If I no longer find my identity in my ethnic origin or culture, in my economic status, or in my gender, who am I?

If I no longer identify others in Christ by these criteria, who are they? The answer of the disciples in Antioch is this: I am a Christian!

Since the new name was coined because of such teaching, perhaps to qualify for the name one must understand and practice the reconciling power of the gospel. If, when the church was the most powerful influence shaping Western civilization, we had practiced being biblically Christian, we could have avoided much of the tension that now exists because of racial prejudice, economic stratification, and the absence of gender equality.



Clint Gill is an instructor with Christian Training Ministries in Greenford, Ohio.

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